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Saved by a stranger

Published August 11, 2007 12:00 am

Thanks to a California firefighter, Utah's former Catholic bishop has a new liver and a new perspective
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

We have been blessed tenfold by this gift of life. . . . It has been one of the most spiritual experiences we have ever experienced in our lives."

Terri Haverty, whose husband, Dan, donated part of his liver to Bishop William Weigand

The nausea began in 1981, three months after Bishop William Weigand became shepherd to Utah's 80,000 or so Catholics.

Others might just have wolfed down Maalox, but Weigand sensed he needed a doctor. Trouble was, he didn't know one. In fact, the shy bishop didn't know anyone yet, so he turned to Salt Lake City's Holy Cross nuns, hoping they could connect him to a gastroenterologist and keep it confidential. No need to worry his flock as he launched ambitious plans for the diocese.

Thus began Weigand's little-known, 25-year battle with liver disease - 13 years in Utah and 12 as bishop of Sacramento. Along the way, the bishop learned more than he ever could have imagined about bodily functions and medical science. He endured chronic suffering and faced death. He was humbled and tested and frustrated, even as his faith and gratitude grew.

Today, Weigand is a new man. The 70-year-old is pain-free and positive, with enough energy to preside over Sacramento's demanding, diverse diocese of 300,000. His ashen look is gone, replaced by a healthy glow.

What brought about this remarkable change?

After so many years of protecting his secret, even from people near and dear to him, Weigand's life was saved by a stranger.

A painful beginning

Back in the 1980s, Weigand was too busy to be sick. He was renovating the Cathedral of the Madeleine in downtown Salt Lake City, reaching out to the burgeoning Latino population, inaugurating Spanish-language Masses, establishing policies on reporting abuse and creating a communication network for the diocese. Not a single program remained untouched by the gung-ho bishop.

The only way people knew Weigand might be suffering is that he came to work a little later than usual, says Monsignor Robert Bussen, who was Weigand's vicar general in Utah. "He used his early mornings to get himself together. It was also his prayer time."

But Weigand wasn't fooling himself.

Through imaging equipment, the doctors at the University of Utah Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic discovered that Weigand's bile ducts were clogged and abnormal. He had primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare progressive disease that causes scarring near the liver and eventually damages the organ's function. They told him his disease might be manageable with medication, but ultimately could not be cured. Worst-case scenario? He had three to five years to live.

So the bishop took medicine, tried to relieve stress through exercise and rubbed holy water from Lourdes on his abdomen.

"It was a physical action accompanied by a prayerful request for divine assistance," he says. "It gave me peace."

Throughout the decades, first in Utah and continuing in Sacramento, physicians monitored his liver's slow deterioration. Starting in September 1999, he had 50 balloon treatments to open the ducts, which seemed to work in the short term.

"They kept me going long enough for the technology to catch up," Weigand says. "But it was becoming clearer that time was running out."

Being tapped by God

Sacramento firefighter Dan Haverty first read about the bishop's plight in The Sacramento Bee in January 2004. The article described his disease, his current condition and need for a transplant by a living donor. Whole livers can regenerate from a single section, leaving giver and recipient with healthy tissue. But a transplant is not without risk for both.

As a Catholic, Haverty had seen the bishop a few times at confirmations or Mass but did not really know him. The fire chief put the newspaper in the recycling bin but found himself returning to it over the next few days. He realized he fit the profile - under 50, in good health, with O-positive blood type and about the same body size as the bishop.

So he wrote a letter to the bishop offering his organ, but before he mailed it, Haverty showed it to his wife, Terri, who was a little surprised.

"I told her I felt called to do it," Haverty says. "We talked about it and prayed about it. That feeling never left me."

By November, 26 other people also heard the call.

Then the sorting began. The bishop required that the donor have neither children nor parents to care for and be financially secure, in the event of disability or death. He insisted that any donor have the support of his entire family.

To guarantee such support, the Havertys called a family meeting with their parents, three adult children and grandchildren. They showed medical data, graphs and photos. They described hypotheticals.

One daughter-in-law wondered what would happen if one of his grandchildren needed a liver in the future and there was nothing left to give. Haverty's mother said she had lost two daughters, one to cancer and another in a plane crash. She could not face losing another child, she said.

"We trust in the Lord," Haverty assured the assembled family. "If I should die, that's the sacrifice we are willing to make."

Eventually, the family came to share that perspective, he says. "There was a bit of faith involved."

A growing urgency

By the fall of 2004, Weigand was growing weaker by the day. He could no longer work full time and had to turn over some of his responsibilities to others. When saying Mass, he needed other people to help him stand or hold the chalice. The toxins had begun to affect even his mental acuity and made him dizzy. He got up to use the bathroom one night and fell down the stairs.

Meanwhile, the search for a donor was narrowing.

In February 2005, the bishop phoned Haverty to say the fire chief had been chosen.

"The Lord puts suffering in some people's lives so other people have the opportunity to show love and compassion," Haverty recalls the bishop saying.

It was tough, even then, for Weigand to accept such a gift. He was awestruck by the parishioner's generosity but wondered if he should jeopardize another man's life. What if something happened to Haverty, he worried. That would be worse than dying himself.

At this point, though, there was nothing to do but proceed.

A week after the selection, Weigand dined with the Havertys in their home. They prayed together and awaited their joint date with destiny.

On Holy Thursday, the two held a news conference to announce the match publicly. That night during services, Weigand called Haverty out of the congregation and washed his feet. It seemed an incredible act of humility. Haverty was overwhelmed.

The operation was scheduled for April 1. ("God has a sense of humor," Haverty joked.)

Weigand entered University of California Medical Center in San Francisco with his two brothers, one a Benedictine monk. Haverty had his wife. The couple said a rosary together. Then the bishop blessed them.

At 7 a.m., the two men were wheeled into the operating room, Haverty first. Surgery lasted until late afternoon, with recovery until late evening. Haverty was back to work in six weeks; the bishop took about three months (though doing some work at home). Weigand's liver had almost completely atrophied; only a small portion was working. He could not have survived with it much longer.

"They took 73 percent of my liver, essentially the entire right lobe," Haverty says. "Both livers grew to be about 90 percent of the original. It was the equivalent of growing two New York steaks."

A new vocation

Since the 2005 transplant, both men have recovered completely.

Weigand feels better than he has in years. Now he enjoys bicycling and hiking. He feels comfortable taking on more pastoral assignments than ever, confident that his energy will stay with him.

He finds himself drawing on his experience in sermons, attracted to St. Paul's words of solace: "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong."

Even Weigand's conversations have changed.

"Before the transplant, we'd talk about what he was doing and how it was going. He rarely talked about himself, just his work - what I call 'head things,' " says Bussen of St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Park City. "Now we have much more personal conversations. We talk about feelings and how we want to live our lives."

The transplant also transformed the Havertys.

"We have been blessed tenfold by this gift of life. Not only is Dan doing great, we now have a great friend. It has been one of the most spiritual experiences we have ever experienced in our lives," says Terri Haverty. "There really isn't a week that goes by that we don't talk to someone about this experience in some way or another. It's the gift that keeps on giving."

For the past two summers, Weigand has invited the Havertys to a cabin at Priest's Lake, Idaho, where they talk and fish together. Just last week, Weigand attended Haverty's appointment as fire chief of Folsom, Calif. He prayed and blessed his friend.

For his trouble, Haverty got a "great looking scar" (it's known as the "Mercedes incision," he says) and a smaller appetite (the new liver grew to the right and presses on his stomach, making him feel full).

And he has a new sense of confidence.

He testified about organ donation before the California Senate and recently was appointed to the Golden State Organ Services' board of directors.

Haverty is constantly asked to share his experience in classrooms and Rotary Clubs, in giant gymnasiums and small boardrooms. He tells them to look for ways to give love in their everyday lives. He listens to others' tales of suffering and healing. He has heard of people inspired by the transplant to become donors or who return to their Catholic faith.

"I wouldn't have felt comfortable sharing my spirituality in public before," Haverty says. "Now it's easy for me to tell people how the Lord uses us to extend his message and share his love."

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* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be reached at pstack@sltrib.com or 801-257-8725. Send comments about this story to religioneditor@sltrib.com.